Only the most optimistic of the party faithful expected Miliband’s Labour to achieve a majority on 7 May. Though the Conservative Party seemed unable to secure a definitive lead, all the signs were that the British Establishment, pleading national emergency, would cobble together a Conservative-led coalition, or minority government, once again manoeuvring an unelected Old Etonian into 10 Downing Street. In the event the Very British Coup that constitution-watchers on the left were anticipating proved unnecessary. The Conservatives achieved what none of the pundits and pollsters – or even they themselves – expected and, thanks to a 0.8 per cent increase in their share of the vote, secured a modest parliamentary majority together with the ‘elective dictatorship’ it delivers.
Making sense of the election results
It was crushing news for the Labour Party, and for the broader left. But the longer term trends had been pointing to such an outcome, and only the more recent polling made it surprising. The lead that Labour for a time enjoyed had long since slipped away, and the general election took place in the context of a modest economic recovery which the Tories hoped would secure a definitive lead in the polls. Their strategy was straight out of the Thatcherite playbook: slash and burn before engineering a recovery in time for the election, promise future prosperity, and all the time relentlessly attack the opposition over their supposed record of economic mismanagement. On this basis, the Conservatives expected a bounce in the final weeks of the campaign, and when this never materialised they settled on a panicked strategy of blatant scaremongering in England about Scottish nationalism. This seems to have paid off, although no one is precisely sure yet what factors lay behind the unexpected Tory victory, or why their strong lead over Labour was not foreseen in the polls. The evidence, however, does not suggest a late Tory swing. Ipsos MORI CEO Ben Page points out that support for the Conservatives was in fact lower than the polling had predicted. Their majority, it seems, was only achieved because in the event actual Labour support was lower still. Moreover, the Conservatives’ strong 6.5 per cent lead over Labour in terms of vote share is solely attributable to their lead in the over-65 age bracket. This in itself is impressive given how dependent this section of the electorate is on health care, but it hardly represents a convincing reversal of the long term decline of the Conservative Party’s social base.
All this said, the fact remains that the 7 May result was a disaster. Whilst hardly a defeat for the left – the Labour Party failed to articulate even a centrist social democratic politics, and was obliterated from the left in Scotland by the SNP – it represents an important victory for the most cruel (and most disliked) faction of the political elite (bar, perhaps, UKIP), and the faction, moreover, that is closest to finance and big business. As Aeron Davis has noted, the Conservatives remained the favoured party of business, even under New Labour. In 1997, 69 per cent of business people voted for the Conservatives, and in February this year 87 per cent hoped for a Conservative, or Conservative-led, government. As such, the election represented a major achievement not just for the Tories, but also for the class forces they represent. It will be taken as a vindication of the inhumanity of the former, the power of the latter, and there will be dire consequences for the most vulnerable sections of society, who would likely have suffered far less under a differently composed government.
Why did Labour lose?
Who is to blame for delivering over what remains of the UK’s threadbare social democracy to its enemies? Miliband, for all his good intentions, plainly lacked the charisma and authority to lead a genuinely populist left challenge, even had he set out to do so. He was, of course, relentlessly attacked in the press as weird and inept, but this line of attack was pursued for a reason. His approval ratings were consistently lower than those of his party, whilst the inverse was true for Cameron and the Conservatives. Hence the intensely personal focus of the campaign from Conservative Central Office and the right-wing press.
But even accepting that Miliband was ill-suited to take on the Tories, his personal failings must be contextualised. Like his brother, he is a product of what has become a technocratic, middle-class party with few links to its historical working class base. Whereas once a significant portion of the party leadership emerged via the broader labour movement, of which the Labour Party is still notionally a part, it is now overwhelmingly populated by the same narrow Oxbridge-educated elite that has traditionally dominated the Conservative Party, the civil service, the BBC, and the other principal institutions of the British state. This state of affairs was well suited to the triangulation strategy of New Labour, which sought to appeal to middle class swing voters by jettisoning traditional notions of left and right, whilst occupying a supposed centre ground. But a shift to the left, even a minor one like that attempted in the run-up to 2015, requires the sort of popular support and mobilisation that the hollowed-out party of Blair and Brown protégés seemed unable to imagine, let alone pursue (despite the highly visible payoffs of such a strategy when deployed by the SNP and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland). Miliband’s muddled policy pronouncements and awkward manner were symptomatic of this fatal institutional inertia. What we call ‘charisma’ is mostly a product of confidence, and Miliband’s apparent intention to develop a modestly social democratic alternative plainly lacked the requisite institutional support within his party. Meanwhile, the failure to clearly articulate a leftist, pluralist and inclusive vision alienated a large portion of natural Labour supporters, with many seeing the introduction of the ‘immigration mugs’ as the final sign that this was no longer the party in which to invest their energies.
The election, with its grim prospects of five more years of punitive austerity, asset-stripping privatisation, democracy erosion and one-sided class warfare from above, needs to be understood in the broader context of what Colin Crouch has called ‘post-democracy’ – that is, the decline of social democratic parties (indeed, mass political parties of all stripes) and the displacement of democratic politics by corporate dominated policy making and neoliberal technocracy. In the wake of disasters like 7 May, it is worth recalling the limitations of parliamentary democracy. Under the neoliberal model of capitalism, elections – those dark nights in which all cats are grey – afford citizens some choice and a little influence, but it is minimal at best. All the while, between intermittent stage-managed and corporate-funded spectacles, policy making goes along behind the scenes, overwhelmingly reflecting the interests of the very wealthy and the corporate elite. Even in those instances where a radical leftist government is able to wield a strong mandate for change, as has been the case in Greece, such governments find themselves with very little power, constrained by the institutional frameworks put in place by capital and its representatives. But at least Syriza has been willing to try. Most social democratic parties across Europe have been unwilling to mount anything like a convincing challenge to the existing state of affairs, as the miserable example of François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste government in France thoroughly illustrates. At the end of the day, other than the residual tribalism and tendency towards wishful thinking on the British centre left, there is scant reason to think that a Miliband government would have offered any real alternative. Although its impact on the most vulnerable might have been cushioned, a Labour government, having ceded the economic arguments to the Tories, would still have pursued austerity.
Where to next?
So we come to that agonisingly familiar question for the left: what is to be done? We see three distinct but related kinds of activity which, taken together, might offer a way forward for the left. These include a rearguard defence of what remains of the welfare state; a concerted and coordinated fightback against the Tories; and – ultimately – the development of a counter hegemonic left political project capable of serving as the basis of broad common agreement and a reference point for campaigns and sustained popular mobilisation. Such a programme can begin immediately, starting from the resources, relationships and networks already available to us, and then advancing steadily through stages of mobilisation and development. It requires years of work, perhaps even decades, but patient and determined building beats defeatism and retreat, not to mention the deadly capitulationism already evident in the lacklustre and uninspiring Labour leadership contest.
To begin, then, in the face of the coming Tory assault we must mount a widespread and tenacious defence of the remaining accomplishments of the postwar settlement, particularly the NHS and the already much reduced services provided by our diminished local authorities. We need a multitude of local campaigns and actions to be mounted against further cuts and privatisations and in this we may find some unexpected allies; even 18 per cent of Conservative voters worry that the Tories can’t be trusted with the NHS, and under the aegis of the Tory-controlled Local Government Association, Tory council leaders across England and Wales have already signed a joint letter with their Labour and Lib Dem counterparts warning George Osborne that further budget cuts would devastate local services and lead to widespread community breakdown.
Part of the defensive struggle will be a fight over information. The Tories lied their way into power – about the cause of the financial crash and the budget deficit, the timing, nature and extent of the economic recovery, and the overall impact of austerity, past and future, on living standards and growth. The lies and misleading analysis on immigration are some of the most glaring. The consensus opinion across the political spectrum at present seems to be that (the bad kind of) immigrants are bad for Britain, the drawbridge should be raised up and people encouraged or forced to leave. Political rhetoric and media reporting not only miss the actual impact of immigration law and policy, but are mirror opposites of the realities: immigrants are less likely to draw benefits, and have a net positive impact on the economy. Such lies were used to deflect attention from Tory policies, which benefited the most wealthy over the poor and marginalised in society, and onto convenient ‘outsiders’ with little power to counter these narratives.
None of this is new or surprising. Political parties representing the interests of capital have to lie (as well as compromise) in order to build electoral coalitions, but their lies should be exposed. There has been some reluctance on the left to blame the media for the election outcome, and for good reason; it is a tired refrain. But the right wing press is plainly important in framing political debate and spreading lies and misinformation and evidence shows that it set the framework of television coverage during the campaign, which in the final weeks focused overwhelmingly on the economy and possible coalitions, the issues on which the Tories were best able to attract support, rather than issues like housing or the NHS, for example. Moreover, the Tories were able to capitalise on years of misinformation about the deficit, successfully framing a financial crisis as a crisis of public spending. Whilst anti-austerity arguments are often taken for granted on the left, these arguments – whether they are about money creation or the relationship between public spending and growth during a downturn – were never really present in mainstream debate. Information about the impact of cuts – to essential services such as housing and care for the elderly and vulnerable, for instance – simply has not been shared widely enough. In the case of local government cuts, this is in part down to the lack of opposition from the councils themselves.
Armed with the requisite information, a successful resistance will need to identify and concentrate its forces on a limited number of institutional and political pressure points. Some of the most successful campaigns of the last five years took very clear, focused action against particular targets on the basis of specific demands. In many cases these campaigns were broadened out beyond their initial demands to make wider political points; the Focus E15 campaign, for example, became about a ‘social housing, not social cleansing’. This is also driven home by the lesson of recent gains made by the environmental movement. The campaigns against fracking, for instance, drew in people from both left and right, succeeded (at least temporarily) in their narrow aim to block drilling, and also offered a springboard for further action by increasing the salience of the issues, effectively shaping the debate and building ties with the wider climate movement. We must apply these lessons to our strategies of resistance as we mount a series of defensive rearguard actions against the coming onslaught.
The second challenge is more difficult, and concerns the switch to the offensive and beginning of the fightback. We must build some kind of organisational infrastructure capable of articulating an actionable set of intermediate demands around which to construct alliances and build political power. A sensible approach might involve efforts to better coordinate the activities of existing organisations and social movements so that some sort of movement of movements might begin to develop ideas and organisation for a more proactive politics. Rather than centralisation of struggles, this means building links between and within movements and across the geographical regions of the country. Here again, the best way to proceed might be a laser focus on specific issues and an attempt to snowball from there. Beginning with a tightly focused agenda will help ensure that people who might otherwise be unmoved by ‘theory’ become engaged with issues that immediately affect them; it will help ensure that energy stays high as people work towards clear and achievable objectives; and it will naturally lead to people making links to a bigger picture and building networks, first out of tactical necessity and subsequently with a more strategic vision in mind.
One way for the left to build a solid basis going forward would be for it to come up with two or three key demands capable of uniting broad constituencies – perhaps: (1) affordable housing for all; (2) massive investment in Green infrastructure; and (3) a national living wage. Then the various existing campaigns can coordinate and collectively orient towards these aims. Such connections are already happening with, for instance, environmental groups, unions and anti-austerity campaigners together confronting the nexus of issues related to low pay, fuel poverty, unaffordable housing and the fossil fuel hungry Big Six energy providers. On this basis it might be possible, even in an era of political reaction and mounting economic difficulty, to get off the back foot and begin to propagate a proactive set of political demands capable of commanding wide support and shifting the basis of the political conversation.
The thread running through all these areas of action is the need to rethink and restrategise the way that we do activism, to reach out beyond the already converted and draw others into our movement and our vision for change. We need to examine the mobilisation strategies used by those who have been successful, including those, like UKIP, with whom we have no political affinity, to understand what worked for them and how it could possibly be adapted to work for us. We need to be able to win arguments again, to proactively reach out in the spirit of understanding and genuine engagement. This includes engaging with those who are not yet on our side, trying to change people’s political beliefs. This is much more difficult than organising amongst the like-minded, but if we are not even participating in the battle of ideas (when those who are not on our side are investing their resources into precisely this) alongside mobilising our allies, we lose before we even start.
Ultimately, though, to begin to challenge neoliberalism, the left needs to identify, develop, adopt and articulate a truly counter-hegemonic political project capable of gaining widespread support on the basis of a new ‘common sense’. The problem is that it has not been possible to advance a convincing positive alternative to a now-embedded neoliberalism that the Tories and Labour largely agree upon, because there is little understanding or agreement about what an economically viable socialism looks like in an era of states that depend for commercial and military power on success in international trade and foreign investment and whose economies are heavily integrated and governed by entrenched international regulatory frameworks. Nor is there broad understanding or agreement about what participatory democracy would look like in an era of large heterogeneous states characterised by extreme inequality, ‘time poverty’ and hollowed-out political parties. It is worth frankly acknowledging our collective shortcomings in this regard – not least to concentrate people’s minds on the need to think through and then propagate an alternative political economy.
To construct such a political programme we must look beyond the dying tax-and-spend social democratic state and its exhausted politics. Though difficult, such a move can also be liberating. There are a growing number of experiments and models that point the way, from participatory budgeting to worker co-operatives, to alternative currencies, to revitalised forms of public ownership, to new understandings about money that open up huge vistas of possibility. How all this could fit together is the burning question, although there are also a growing number of proposals along the lines of alternative systemic design and we can at least hazard the lineaments of some possible directions, based on a rejection of the core parameters and principles of the current neoliberal order.
Instead of extractive corporations we might look for institutional arrangements that recirculate wealth and enhance multipliers, grounded in living local economies whereby we take in each others’ wash rather than being held hostage to the imperatives of attracting inward investment and retaining footloose capital – call it ‘deglobalisation’ if you like. Instead of ever more privatisation, we might call for democratic ownership – by workers, consumers, publics large and small. Instead of speculative financial markets we might look to decentralised, but coordinated, democratic economic decision-making. All of this means economic planning – because there may be no other way to meet the climate challenge without it, and because most of the economy is planned already, only inside unaccountable corporations rather than by public and democratic bodies. In the developed world at least, we might look to trade consumption against time affluence – on the basis of a basic income, or a job guarantee, or both – while in developing countries we need some form of qualitative green growth. We may wish to place participatory rather than representative democracy at the heart of our governance. We may also wish to see radical decentralisation throughout the system, both to place power at the lowest appropriate level for reasons of democracy and accountability, and because we need to dismantle the concentrated power of our overweening imperialist states.
Of course, others may have different and better ideas. But in order to transition to a new political economy, whatever it may look like, we will surely need to begin the long, hard work of building new institutional power bases. Achieving this aim may seem daunting, but the beginnings of a change are already present – and will continue to grow. We can be encouraged by the new campaigns emerging across the country, many of which are aligning with what’s left of our declining unions. It is this activism and resistance that can help us build our political understanding and ambition and begin to shift the political consensus in more radical ways. The next five years will unavoidably be years of grim difficulty and social pain. Let’s make them count for something.